Category Archives: USA

Cable cars and rocking the Castro

Sunday 12th October – Monday 13th October
San Francisco, USA

Trolleys and cable cars, San Francisco
Coming from Gateshead, we know hilly when we see it, but San Francisco takes the biscuit. And since the late 1800s the solution has been the cable car – a small carriage that zips up and down the hills using a moving cable under the street (in places you can see and hear the cable under the street; the cable car essentially grabs onto the cable with a huge pair of pliers in order to move along).

There are only forty cars and a couple of cable car lines left in the city, and although many other cities once had them, these are the now the only remaining working lines in the world. And they are more fun to ride than any public transport should be, especially when you get to hang onto the outside of the carriage as it descends a steep hill into downtown San Francisco.

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In addition, the city still has a network of trams (US: trolleys or street cars) covering parts of the city that are a bit flatter. A number of the lines are served by historic trams from across the USA and elsewhere in the world. 

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On Sunday, we took the tram and cable car (and one of the city’s electric buses) to the cable car museum, to find out more. The museum is small but fascinating….not least because the very same building houses the workings of the system, which keep the cables moving at a constant pace of 9.5 miles per hour. 

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A final baseball fix, The Castro
As I mentioned in our last post, the Giants weren’t playing at home while we were in town, but we couldn’t miss the opportunity to watch an away game in a sports bar with the local fans! We found an amazing bar, called Hi Tops (the only gay sports bar in town, apparently), not far from our apartment.

The atmosphere was fantastic, not least because it was a very close game. The St Louis Cardinals took the lead a couple of times, only for the Giants to draw level, and even edge one point ahead in the top of the seventh and ninth innings. Unfortunately, it then fell flat when the Cardinals scored a walk off home run in the bottom of the ninth, leaving the series tied at one all (the series is the best of seven games….let’s go Giants!).

Exploring the Castro and Mission
We had a few hours before our flight to Sydney on Monday, so after checking out of our apartment, we took a bit of time to walk around the Castro and Mission districts.

The Castro wears its gay heritage on its sleeve – from our lunchtime stop, Harvey’s (one of the original gay bars in the area, and now named after Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected representative of the area, who was assassinated a short time after his election) through to the brand new rainbow zebra crossings (US: crosswalks) in the heart of the district.

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Mission, meanwhile, just a short walk away, is another lovely area where you can find the most beautiful murals in the most unexpected places. 

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Dolores Park also gave us one last beautiful view of this truly fantastic city.

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Video of the day
Everyone knows the Golden Gate Bridge, but the Bay Bridge is making a bid for similar fame at the moment.

The artist Leo Villareal has created The Bay Lights, a beautiful piece of public art on the bridge. Consisting of 25,000 LED lights which have been individually programmed, the result is a mesmerising (and never repeating) display of lights across the span of the bridge, 1.8 miles wide and 500 feet high. It’ll be here for two years (though there is already a fundraising campaign to keep it longer) and we went to take a look on Sunday evening. A truly beautiful and mesmerising piece of art – this video from the New York Times shows a bit more about it.

San Francisco: fly balls and flying machines

Thursday 9th October – Saturday 11th October
San Francisco, USA

Our journey from Monterey to San Francisco on Thursday involved a bus to San Jose (the civic heart of Silicon Valley), a short train ride to Emeryville Amtrak station, then a coach and subway to our apartment in the Castro neighbourhood.

Ferry Building and AT&T Park, Downtown San Francisco
For our first full day in San Francisco we decided to explore the downtown area of the city.

We remember the Ferry Building really well from our last visit: a beautiful old building on the waterfront, with some fantastic food stalls inside.

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We eventually decided on lunch at Delica, which was a fusion of Japanese and Californian food.

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We haven’t written much about the baseball season for a while, but never fear: it’s still going! There are now just four teams left in the playoffs (and the winners of those games will meet in the World Series very soon), of which one is my team: the San Francisco Giants.

The Giants weren’t playing at home while we were in town, but we took a quick trip to AT&T Park, the Giants’ home.

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This is basically where our fascination with baseball began: we saw the Giants play a really exciting game here on our visit in 2010. The ballpark is absolutely beautiful, including fantastic views of the waterfront (it’s so close to the water that some people sit in kayaks in the water alongside the ballpark during home games, to try and catch home run balls that end up in the water!). It was great to see the ballpark (and much of the city) adorned with reminders of the Giant’s great postseason run. This picture is of Buster Posey, the Giants’ catcher and one of our favourite players.

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Fleet Week, Golden Gate National Recreation Area
“So are you here for Fleet Week?”

We decided to take a different tack with accommodation in San Francisco – for the first time we decided to use Airbnb, and rented an apartment in Castro from John, a lovely guy who gave us some great tips about where to go while we were in town. He had also assumed Fleet Week was our destination. As it turns out, Fleet Week is a huge event, attracting about one million people each year, that honours the men and women of the US Armed Forces, as well as other Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Response personnel.

It seemed rude not to go.

On Saturday, we boarded a bus to the Marina Green, where the main event was taking place. The bus got stuck in traffic on the way – at first we thought it must be a traffic collision, but we overheard a few people talking about the President. Sure enough, we caught a glimpse of motorbikes and police cars speeding by, along with a huge car complete with US flags on the hood! Turns out, Obama was in town for a political speech on Friday night, followed by a fundraisers in Pacific Heights (where we were travelling through) on Saturday morning. The local media seemed less impressed than us, though, mainly complaining about the traffic jams!

Finally at the waterfront, and a walk along to the Marina gave fantastic views of the Golden Gate Bridge.

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We then took a walk and settled down to watch the airshow.

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It was a fabulous show, and the Blue Angels (the US Navy’s equivalent of the Red Arrows) were particularly impressive (and loud!)

Song of the day
‘Save Me, San Franciso’ by Train is one of Joanna’s favourite songs, and the video is a good excuse for some great shots of the city.

Otterly amazing

Sunday 5th October – Thursday 9th October
Monterey, USA

Travelling by train and other public transport, rather than hiring a car, means that we sometimes miss out on seeing smaller towns. While we love cities, it is nice to be somewhere a little more relaxing sometimes.

So when we planned our time at Esalen, and realised that the closest town is Monterey (still over an hour’s drive away), we decided to book a few chilled out days at a hotel in this small, tourist-y place.

We got a lift from Esalen to Monterey with Claudine, in her old purple VW van. She’d also been at Esalen for the weekend. We picked up some other travellers on the way through, who had been hiking in the mountains and exploring the natural hot springs in the area.

Monterey is the home of Cannery Row, the location for the eponymous novel by John Steinbeck, a resident of nearby Salinas. Although the book is fictional, it is true that this town boomed in the first half of the twentieth century, on the back of catching and canning sardines (and, towards the end of its success story, the production of fish meal, used for feeding animals and fertilising agricultural land).

The canning plants were close to the water’s edge, and the workers there began their shifts when the catch was landed (around 3 or 4am) and continued until the whole catch had been processed. The canned fish were then carried across to the other side of Cannery Row via covered, elevated conveyor belts. Some of the resulting enclosed bridges can still be seen today.

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Sea kayaking, Monterey Bay
My name is Joanna Bromhead, and I love otters. River otters are great (particularly the ones at the aquarium in the Lake District), but sea otters are possibly even better, as they float on their backs and eat shellfish on their stomachs, having smashed the shells off using favourite rocks that they store in pockets under their fore-legs. Yes, really. (Also, they look like swimming teddy bears.)

Sea otters used to be abundant on the California coastline, but they were hunted for their pelts, almost to extinction. They have been protected by law since 1911, but they have only recently made it off the endangered list; no-one really knows why their numbers are not recovering more quickly.

However, quite a few otters live in Monterey Bay, joining together into rafts and winding themselves into the kelp to keep from floating away. We could just about see them from the shore, but it is possible to get relatively close to them by hiring a kayak.

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It was fairly windy, so paddling against the current was hard work – I was grateful to Andrew and Scott for their work in teaching me to paddle all those years ago, although I certainly recall less kelp and fewer pelicans in Albert Avenue baths…

“Harassing” the animals can lead to a $100,000 fine, so we had been advised to remain at least 50 feet, or five kayak lengths, away from them at all times, although we were warned that the bay’s resident harbour/harbor seals might be curious about us, and so may come closer to check us out.

However, as we were paddling along close to the harbour wall, we suddenly spotted two otters fighting/playing in the water immediately in front of us. We were probably only 60 feet from them, so we immediately stopped paddling so as not to get too close. The otters apparently hadn’t read the rule book, though, as they swam directly towards us, and one of them popped up immediately beside my boat, putting one front paw onto the deck and sticking his nose up to take a look at me! He then swam under my boat, popped up on the other side and repeated the process.

Getting out on the water also provided us with a great opportunity to see some of the area’s other wildlife in its natural environment, including pelicans and cormorants, seals and sea lions.

Monterey Bay Aquarium, Cannery Row
Not having had enough of sea otters, despite our close encounter, we also visited the Monterey Bay Aquarium. We have been to a number of aquariums over the years (you could say that we are a-fish-ionados…), usually in search of otters of one kind or another, and this one was certainly excellent. In addition to the great exhibits and the fantastic conservation work that they do, it was very interesting to read more about the previous life of the building housing the aquarium, which was formerly a canning plant, until the sardines ran out in the 1950s as a result of both over-fishing and natural cycles.

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Overall, our time in Monterey was a lovely chance to relax and to continue the zen mood that we had begun to cultivate at Esalen.

Picture of the day
This artwork was in the Monterey Bay Aquarium:

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It is inspired by the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (a massive area of waste plastic in the middle of the ocean) and Hokusai’s woodcut The Great Wave off Kanagawa. It’s made of 2.4 million pieces of plastic – the number of pounds of plastic estimated to enter the world’s oceans every hour.

In search of a calmer karma

Friday 3 to Sunday 5 October
Esalen, Californian Coast, USA

Several months ago, when we first began planning this trip, Simon read the (excellent) advice that one should aim to gather experiences, not sights. After all, we are going to a lot of places just by the very nature of our travels; it is what we do in those places that will really be memorable.

So we looked out for one-off, can’t-get-this-anywhere-else opportunities, which is how we found ourselves at Esalen. After all, what could be more Californian than a weekend workshop on Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction at the original hippie hang-out?!

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Esalen occupies a particularly stunning section of the Californian coast. The institute was established in 1962, and was the birthplace of the “human potential movement”. Today, it hosts a range of courses and workshops, as well as providing a beautiful retreat. Its facilities include accommodation, a farm, a kitchen that produces the most delicious fresh food and hot springs.

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We were fascinated by the incredible wildlife, including the hummingbirds (which sound like a jet engine when they pass close by) and blue jays. The monarch butterflies were amazing, too; far bigger than the ones at home. They apparently migrate over 2,000 miles each year to their breeding grounds in Mexico.

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We also met some lovely people, including fellow Brit Rich (we bonded over tea, of course), who is travelling around the world visiting “intentional communities” and blogging about what he finds.

Video of the day
If you are wondering what mindfulness is all about, this video should enlighten you!

PS Thanks to Ed, and to Helen (who took me to The Orange Tree) for originally piquing our interest in mindfulness.

Travelling through California

Thursday 2nd October – Friday 3rd October
San Diego to Esalen, USA

From San Diego, we moved north through California, to a place called Esalen (of which more in our next post). The journey was simply spectacular, and the photos just don’t do it justice, but here’s a bit about what we saw.

Train journey, San Diego to Salinas
An early start on Thursday – the alarm went off at 4.30am! Our train from San Diego (called the Pacific Surfliner) was at 6.05am. As we left the city we followed the coast and watched the sun rise over the beaches to the north of the city. There were plenty of surfers already in the water as the sun rose.

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We had a short time at Los Angeles station, before we boarded the Coast Starlight, which goes all the way to Seattle.

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Travelling through the sprawl of Los Angeles seemed to take an age (we must have spent at least an hour in total passing through the city and its suburbs). But eventually we left the suburbs behind, passing huge amounts of agriculture.

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And, especially in the Santa Barbara area, beaches and bays one after another.

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The Coast Starlight train, and Joanna in the Sightseer Lounge Car.

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We finally arrived at our stop, Salinas, at 8pm. Salinas is an agricultural centre in California, and was the hometown of the author John Steinbeck.

Bus and van journey, Salinas to Esalen
A slow start on Friday, and after a long sleep we headed to Salinas Transit Center to catch a local bus to Monterey, where we had a chance to relax for a few hours.

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We were picked up in Monterey, and driven south to Esalen along the coast road in Big Sur – surely one of the most beautiful drives in the world. The road winds along the coast, giving the most beautiful views of the bays and beaches along the way.

All in all, the most spectacular journey imaginable!

Fact of the day
The Striking Out blog has just hit 1,000 views! Thank you so much to everyone who’s read, commented, liked and followed our posts. We really hope you’re enjoying reading the blog as much as we are enjoying writing it!

California Dreaming: San Diego

Monday 29th September – Wednesday 1st October
San Diego, USA

When you fly into San Diego, you really do fly into San Diego. As you descend to the airport, you seem to barely miss the tops of the high rise buildings in downtown. Then you can just see water. And finally – seemingly just in time – the runway comes into view. 

The flight from New Orleans took four hours. There were plenty of signs we had arrived in California: The beautiful sunshine; palm trees everywhere; and the yoga mat provided in our hotel room. 

Gaslamp District and harbour
We absolutely loved San Diego, which is in the far south of California, just 17 miles from the Mexican border. It’s perhaps the most laid-back city we’ve ever had the opportunity to visit.

We spent Monday afternoon and Tuesday exploring the downtown area. We were staying in the Gaslamp District, a part of downtown with plenty of bars, restaurants and shops.

On the waterfront is the Seaport District (with a range of shops and restaurants) and the harbour area, which has a number of tourist attractions. This includes the Star of India. Built in 1863, it’s the oldest ship in the world that still goes to sea. It carried British emigrants to New Zealand, rounded Cape Horn 21 times and even survived being frozen in Arctic ice. 

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Pacific Beach
On Wednesday, we decided to hit the beach! There are lots of beaches within easy reach of the city centre. Pacific Beach was about a 45-minute bus ride away, giving us the opportunity to paddle in the Pacific Ocean! 

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There were plenty of surfers in the water, and walking alongside the beach you can enjoy watching a procession of skateboarders, cyclists and joggers glide past. 

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We could easily have spent more time in San Diego, but there’s more of California to explore!

Advert of the day
Spotted in downtown San Diego. Newcastle Brown Ale, how could you?!

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The Big Easy

Thursday 25th September – Monday 29th September
New Orleans, USA

We weren’t quite sure what to expect of New Orleans. Was it going to be a beautiful, historic city?  Or somewhere to sample a range of southern foods? Perhaps a great place to discover fantastic new jazz music. Or maybe it would be a cheesy party town of clubs and bars. 

As it turns out, New Orleans (or ‘N’Awlins’ as it’s pronounced by the locals) is all of those things. 

The French Quarter is actually a fairly large area, containing Bourbon Street (cheesy party town? Check), some lovely restaurants and cafes (foodie experience? No problem), as well as plenty of places to pop in and sample some great music. And there’s still room to get off the beaten track and enjoy the old buildings in fairly residential parts of the historic area. 

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Musical discovery
On arrival at our hotel on Thursday, the receptionist gave us some free tickets to see the Rebirth Brass Band, who won a Grammy for their 2012 album, ‘Rebirth of New Orleans’. So, on Friday night we went to the Howlin’ Wolf in the Central Business district, to check them out. They are a nine-piece band (including three trumpets, two trombones, a saxophone, drummers and tuba). Their style is probably best described as a musical party!

We also saw a couple of different bands in bars on Saturday lunchtime and Saturday evening, one of which was called ‘The New Orleans Swamp Donkeys’. Yes, really. If that wasn’t enough, there was always plenty of music in the street. 

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While having dinner on Saturday night, we even saw a wedding party dance past with their own jazz band!

New Orleans wedding party from Striking out on Vimeo.

Southern food
New Orleans has a very strong food heritage, arising from its mixing pot of different immigrant influences over the years.  Amongst other delicacies, we tried Italian Muffuletta (a sandwich containing ham, cheese, salami and olive salad), Creole red beans and rice (although we declined the opportunity to sample the version that was topped with gator sausage!), gumbo and jambalaya and French beignets (light, fluffy square donuts, drenched in icing sugar).  We also had a traditional breakfast consisting of biscuits (a kind of flaky, savoury scone) with creamy sausage gravy and the ubiquitous grits, which could best be described as a kind of buttery semolina, which can either be eaten savoury with salt and pepper or sweet with maple syrup.

Exploring the French Quarter

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On Sunday afternoon we decided to do a walking tour of the French Quarter, to learn a bit more about the history of the city. Elliot, a volunteer from the Friends of the Cabildo gave a really interesting tour, covering a great deal about the different types of buildings found in the French Quarter, as well as information about how the city is protected from the water that surrounds it.  

The history of the city is fascinating. It really is a melting pot of immigrants, starting with the French, then the Spanish (the French handed it to the Spanish to avoid it being taken by the British in the 1800s). More recent waves of immigration have included Vietnamese (during the Vietnam war) and Cuban. The atmosphere this has created is truly unique. 

There is also now a great deal of protection for the historic buildings (down to exactly what paint can be used on the outside of houses)….one thing this can’t prevent is the fact that the city is sinking, so there are plenty of examples of buildings leaning in interesting directions!

Amusingly, the first question that Elliot asked us when he realised we were from England was whether we knew Hull!  When we said that was our home town, he asked whether we know “the Dodds”, who are family friends!  We couldn’t help – can anyone else?!

Song of the day
It has to be the Rebirth Brass Band. This was recorded by WNYC (a public radio station in New York).